Guest Rants, Lawn Reform, Real Gardens

A meadow’s tale

photo 2The first thing I did after I bought the farm was quit mowing the grass.

The property is ten acres with a nice rolling aspect, some very good old trees, and a dark deep pond for fishing. The assortment of buildings include a Victorian farmhouse, a big party barn, and random log cabins and cribs. I’m the second owner of this historic and picturesque place. The original family had it in possession since about 1800.

photo 3Designing a garden here was going to be a different thing than my home garden in the city, with its paths and borders, rooms and site lines, fountains and arbors. Penelope Hobhouse visited my home garden once—she said it looked “just right.” That’s the moment I gave up on that garden and started searching for new land. I’m not sure I want a “just right” garden. The point here at the farm was to make a garden that would feel wild still, and old, and honor the character of the place.

This is a rural looking area about twenty minutes east of Atlanta, in a part of the exurbs that somehow has escaped being scraped clean of its agrarian character. Klondike, as it’s known, is home to a magnificent piece of granite desert, Arabia Mountain—technically a monadnock, an isolated rock dome that rises above the piney woods. The old farms here have been captured by preservation and parks.

photo 1Many of those old farms had pre-twentieth century pastures, all native grasses and forbs. And that’s where I began. The garden, on many acres, was to interpret that agrarian landscape, including stripping down and presenting the old buildings as “objects” and creating a huge dry garden mulched with local granite that would mimic the mountain and establish sweeping open meadows.

I leaned quickly that creating a “meadow” in my part of the country is more subtraction than addition at first. The wetland adjacent to the pond has deep watery muck for soil and once the mowing ceased, plant life quickly presented itself. Native grasses became evident early, followed by goldenrod, aster, ageratum and fleece flower—with some daisies like Senecio and Sylphium popping up here and there. But also popping up were kudzu, privet, alder, red maple, loblolly pine, sweet gum and huge colonies of blackberry. The Piedmont is a forest. Nature doesn’t think in terms of meadows here.

In the meantime, up the hill a bit, and in much dryer conditions, I plowed up the old lawn and began planting a dry meadow without anything that looked like assistance from nature.  It was important that this planting be perfectly aesthetically compatible to the wild part of the garden, as the areas are only separated by a meandering strip of mowed lawn and I wanted the views from the house to the pond be of an uninterrupted scene of drifted grasses and punctuating flowering things.

Broom sedge and Panicum selections were planted in large groups along with Miscanthus (I’m not afraid of Miscanthus!) and an assortment of other great grasses. Then the perennials came—some native and some not. Our locally indigenous Georgia aster runs together with Euphorbia ‘Blue Daze’ and large drifts of Chrysanthemum share the scene in late fall with Helianthus. This is a garden, not a restoration.

As the wet meadow matured and annual burning pushed the woody invasion back to the forest, I started adding in some intentional planting. I planted a big ass clump of Miscanthus giganteus right in the middle of the deepest part of the meadow. It gets to 12 feet tall by summer’s end and explodes like rockets during the spring burn. (Don’t worry, native hand-wringers, its sterile!) It anchors the entire planting and gives an air of intentionality to what might be otherwise perceived as “wild.”

Also a truckload of water-loving Irises of various sorts and other wet feet perennials got mashed into the mucky ground. The irises win the spring, but the other plantings have a hard time gaining ground here.

With two kids and a business to run and another house and garden to live in and neglect, it is important to note that management of this huge space is done sparingly, in fits and starts. Some years we burn, others we weed-eat, the latter resulting in more diversity. The grasses that we cut to the ground in the dry garden get left there for mulch. I sometimes spray kudzu and blackberries; I sometimes hoe. I often don’t do either.

I’ve learned to appreciate the ornamental merits of some weeds like dog fennel and pokeweed, though I’ve had a harder time appreciating goldenrod—it’s my biggest thug.

But it’s all better than mowing grass.

Posted by David McMullin on December 16, 2014 at 8:15 am, in the category Guest Rants, Lawn Reform, Real Gardens.
13 Comments

13 responses to “A meadow’s tale”

  1. David mcMullin says:

    Aw Shucks Kristin… You get to write about my work from now on. It sounds more impressive in your words!!
    I’m glad you didn’t drown last January when you tipped the canoe…
    Let’s go to the farm soon and do some baking. I’m feeling like making bread. Kneading is so reflective!

  2. David-
    So glad to read your post on here.
    As someone who loves and knows both your home garden and your farm quite intimately, I appreciate the way you’ve described a small part of your process. Perhaps you’ve underestimated the extent to which the first few years were more about editing out invasives and restoring the contours of the land and the self-filtering pond system–no small feat–than about “making a meadow”. I can well attest to the fact that managing invasives with minimal environmental impact is an ongoing task and something you study and puzzle over as the garden presents new challenges.

    Your farm, remote and peaceful as it feels is in a fairly dense suburban area with the flight patters of Atlanta’s airport zooming high above and a bustling mall and megachurch in close proximity. Much of what you’re competing with in management of the meadow isn’t just the tendency of the forested Piedmont, it’s the impact of the surrounding urban environment. As you say, this is a garden (one with a nursery and vegetable patch and open areas for relaxation and play)–part of the built environment. It interprets nature in a romantic and respectful way, but there is no illusion that the farm is nature itself.

    It allows we fortunate to connect with nature and a unique microclimate and plant communities, but we also bake up pies and watch the sun set over the pond and topple a canoe every now and then. It serves as a plantsman’s testing ground, a designer’s atelier, a busy family’s retreat, a community’s meeting spot, a place to celebrate and remember the passing of time (e.g., funeral, weddings, campfires). It is a reminder of our better selves, just outside of what is likely the most trafficky and polluted area in all of metro-Atlanta. Everyone who comes there, gardener or not, recognizes the beautiful and peculiar character of place, though few recognize the heart and sweat and ethic that continually uphold that distinctive character.

    So a good ten years in, the meadows and the gravel garden, the mixed borders and the farmhouse planting, the shady vignettes and the conifer collection are all maturing–it’s been an exercise of gain and loss, joy and grief–150 year old pecan trees adorned with decades of resurrection fern falling on rare Buxus arborescens, soccer balls crashing through the hellebore collection, and an unprecedentedly cold winter demolishing a bottlebrush hedge. I admire the way you roll with all of it.

    Learning how to manage the meadow and the fields are no exception. There is a world of vision and nostalgia and hope tangled up in the chigger-filled solidago and asters. The bramble climing on the grasses and water iris pose a delicate problem. You continue to dance the fine line of intervention and attempt to keep the balance. Though it is a garden–always an extension of the maker–I’ve watched you slacken a tight grasp and let the garden and the meadow tell you how far you can go.

    Thank you.

  3. David mcMullin says:

    Good luck and have fun with it Lori!

  4. Lori Hawkins says:

    Love your meadow David- Like Sharon I want to see more pictures! Thanks so much for sharing your journey with us. I also have a large property to ‘design and manage’, like you. I like your schedule of ‘maintenance’ which is not as stringent as I thought it would be. You have inspired me to start with around my pond this spring- and come what may. I will heed your warning on the Goldenrod, though.

  5. I suspect the goldenrod will give way over time. The plants will shift as any good meadow or prairie does, and that will be the joy of it — and a lesson opposite to the one I think most are taught about gardens or landscapes (i.e. they are static sculptures and must be rigorously maintained as such).

    • David mcMullin says:

      Benjamin, indeed the garden is different each year, with some plants advancing and some retreating, some disappearing completely and others popping up for the first time like a big frothy white eupatorium that we had for the first time this year – but it was distributed perfectly throughout the meadow. I couldn’t have done a better job placing it! But that goldenrod hasn’t backed down! It is beautiful in flower, though…

  6. Tibs says:

    “The Piedmont is a forest. Nature doesn’t think in terms of meadows.” So why are you trying to make it be something it isn’t meant to be? Like people moving to the desert and wanting their lawn.

    • David mcMullin says:

      Oh. Because this is a garden… its part of the built environment. It isn’t nature.
      And the desert/lawn thing isn’t similar. Nature is providing all the water this garden needs.

    • Tibs…I’m not sure what you are asking here. The successional process in the Piedmont moves through the phases Mr. McMullin is describing, so I don’t believe there is a correlation between a desert and a lake.

      My interpretation is the author chose to garden by respecting the inherent nature of the processes and land forms of the region. There is still design in his methods, but a willingness to allow plants to be introduced organically.

      If we are discussing gardening, the act of design as a requisite. The author gardens in a way that yields almost all control to nature. Gardening in sync with natural systems, even interrupting those systems, seems to me to be the most environmentally responsible way a human could garden.

      • Tibs says:

        You are right the desert comparison was bad. What I was trying to say was it sounds like keeping it a meadow would be a lot more work, a constant battle versus nurturing along to the forest it wants to be. A landscaped forest vs a landscaped meadow. Now, does that muddy the waters even more?

        • David mcMullin says:

          It’s not at all a constant battle – any more than wedding any garden would be to keep it from returning to nature… Besides, I don’t want more trees. I have acres of them. And our old farm pond would get shaded out and lose animal diversity and become a silted-in swamp if I allow the trees to mature.
          Again, it’s a garden.

  7. Garden Rant Susan Harris says:

    Wow. Wonderful post. Lots to think about. Thanks!
    Now do you have photos of your garden anywhere online that we could see? Coz I want to see more.

    • David mcMullin says:

      Well funny you should ask Susan, because yes! You can see some earlier pics of my website newmoongardens.com or join my Facebook page of the same name for occassional random posts.

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